You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Inside the VA’s Long-Standing Racism Problem

A Confederate-friendly Trump appointee and an involuntary Juneteenth dress-up are just the latest in a long history of indignities for black veterans and caregivers.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Donald Trump presents Robert Wilkie as secretary of Veterans Affairs after his swearing-in at the White House, July 30, 2018.

The last straw for many black employees at the Kansas City Veterans Affairs hospital was its Juneteenth celebration. To commemorate the date in 1865 when word of emancipation reached slaves in Texas, a manager at the facility last month sent several black subordinates an email informing them that they would be exhibits in a Juneteenth “living museum.” One worker was assigned to be Harriet Tubman; others were told to dress up as Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King. One was slated to play George Floyd, the man whose death at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25 spurred the current anti-police protest movementbut, according to one bemused employee, the Floyd character “was later replaced with Emmett Till.”

Three days before that email leaked to reporters, roughly a dozen protesters had demonstrated outside the Kansas City VA with signs reading “Black VA Employees Matter” and “We Can No Longer Be Silent.” One woman present alleged she’d been fired by the hospital’s white director, David Isaacks, for “speaking against discrimination.” It was the culmination of three months of calls among black VA employeesas well as religious leaders and officials in the local NAACP chapterfor an outside investigation into the hospital’s culture, which they say has been openly and unrepentantly racist for years. The list of alleged misdeeds against black veteran patients and employees over this period is long, and includes white staff cracking lynching jokes and dropping racial slurs including “monkey” and the N-word. “My chief of service referred to me as ‘Aunt Jemima,’” said former employee Charmayne Brown, a Navy veteran. “I have 18 different complaints of racial statements he’s made to me, all well-documented, all reported to administration, and nothing was ever done about it.”

Nearly every American institution, public or private, large or small, has been infected by racism. But the VA was supposed to be different: Though it was not officially established until 1930, its founding principles were first articulated by President Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address. As the Civil War was nearing its conclusion, Lincoln pledged to rebuild America and reconcile its citizenry, including an oath to “care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.” Among those who’d just been spit out of the Civil War grinderstill the bloodiest conflict in American historywere roughly 180,000 black Union veterans. In an extraordinary move for the time, black Americans who’d served were made eligible for health care and pension programs enshrined after the war.

Subsequent wars, and new veteran benefit schemes like the post–World War II GI Bill, gave enlisting black Americans “credentials to compete for jobs that would ultimately lead us into the middle class,” as one of those veterans, singer and Civil Rights activist Harry Belafonte, once put it. VA employment, too, appears to have been a boon for minority integration in the U.S. economy: As of 2015, the department hired black men and women at roughly twice the rate of the federal workforce at large.

Yet this blood oath is far less equitable for minority veterans and caregivers than publicly advertised. Despite progress in recent years, the VA has historically suffered from sustained and significant racial inequities—not just in its delivery of benefits and health care to veterans but in its treatment of its own workforce. Allegations of overt racism today proliferate across the department, from Minnesota to Missouri and even inside the Washington VA.

The VA hasn’t released comprehensive statistics into this behavior, but a survey released this spring showed that 54 percent of psychologists in training at a West Coast VA facility reported experiencing racism on the job. Similar allegations of discriminatory personnel practices have popped up at other facilities, as have racist online posts by employees and excessive force incidents within the department’s in-house police force.

In 2017, after he reported drug dealing between employees and patients on the Massachusetts VA hospital grounds where he worked, a black Army veteran had his car vandalized and received threatening phone calls. He also found a teddy bear at his work station with a noose around its neck and a sign reading “GO HOME OR DIE.” Last year, a resident physician at a Louisiana VA facility hung a black doll from its neck in an employee lounge.

Beyond anecdotes like these, black employees and veterans often confront deeply ingrained and discriminatory institutional practices at the VA. Even as the department runs a Minority Veterans Center and a seemingly effective “African American employment program,” it also sinks millions a year into upkeep and guardianship of Confederate graves. Critics say the Trump administration has exacerbated an atmosphere of racial inequality, not least by establishing an “Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Office” in the VA that’s disproportionately targeted veterans of color in lower-echelon positions, like housekeepers. And while people of color today represent 23 percent of the veteran population—a slice that’s set to increase by 13 points over the next 20 years—VA leadership has been endlessly white.

The current VA secretary, Robert Wilkie, was a longtime member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans; as a staffer for the late racist North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms in 1993, Wilkie blasted Carol Moseley Braun, then the only black senator, for opposing a bill renewing the patent on the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s battle-flag logo. “What we are seeing is an attempt in the name of political correctness to erase entire blocks of our history,” he told The Washington Post, in language that sounds eerily familiar today. “The question is whether we’re going to wipe out the history of millions of Americans who trace their heritage to the losing side.” In 2018, it was revealed that another senior VA leader, David Thomas, had a portrait of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, in his office. Thomas, then overseeing the VA’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, removed the painting after his black employees petitioned him to do so.

In the current national protest movement against racism in America, there’s been a mild reckoning in the military over its dark history of discrimination, with Defense Secretary Mark Esper recently announcing the formation of a board to improve diversity and equality at the Pentagon. Meanwhile, the VA hasn’t either produced or publicly released its minority veteran report since 2017; the most recent publicly available diversity and inclusion report from the department dates back to 2015.

Last week, I submitted a written list of questions to the Department of Veterans Affairs about Wilkie’s prior activities and the department’s current equal opportunity practices, but representatives of the department did not respond to the request. So I can’t discern whether the Trump administration has implemented an Obama-era strategic plan to increase diversity and inclusion through the VA. Against this background, during May’s tense protests in Washington, someone spray-painted a question on Washington’s World War II memorial monument: “Do black vets count?” The historical record provides a clear answer.

In the immediate wake of the Civil War, the veteran pension system offered similar approval rates for black and white applicants. Yet by 1890, 81 percent of whites were approved for pensions, while only 44 percent of blacks were. That year, the government loosened eligibility rules, which again brought near-equity to the approval rates. Yet white pension payments soon became significantly higher than black ones.

Half a century later, after the Senate passed the GI Bill, the historic legislation faced a delay in the lower chamber, led by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman John Rankin. A segregationist Democrat from Mississippi, Rankin “worried that African-American veterans would use the benefits to avoid work and live off the government,” according to a National Endowment for the Humanities history of the bill; Rankin “also didn’t see the need to give African Americans the same benefits as whites.” While Rankin ultimately lost this battle, opponents of racial equality found ways to unevenly distribute benefits; some Southern postmasters were even accused of refusing to deliver unemployment paperwork to black veteran homes.

Despite this, in the six years after the GI Bill was ratified, college enrollment among black Americans almost tripled. Former Captain Dovey Johnson Roundtree used her benefits to attend Howard University’s law school and went on to become a pioneering civil rights attorney: In the 1950s, she effectively secured the desegregation of U.S. bus travel through her work on behalf of a black Army private who was told to give her seat to a white Marine in North Carolina.

Yet GI Bill data shows that black vets were often shut out of prestigious colleges and universities in the north. Many of the black Southern vets who did gain a chance at an education were funneled into private sector schools that, according to a 1947 review by the Urban League, didn’t meet core training standards. The VA was clearly not concerned with this inequity, as it was then urging blacks to skip a higher education and instead attend a vocational program. Many blacks were also denied access to the GI Bill’s home, business, and farm loans. Ebony magazine found that, in 1947, just two of the 3,229 VA loans offered in major Mississippi cities went to black vets.

The Vietnam War saw the highest proportion of black soldiers in American history, and many were sent to the front lines. This resulted in massive black casualty rates, with 25 percent of all combat deaths in 1965 hitting black families. (Because black service members are less likely to be made officers, they’ve long faced more danger than their white counterparts.) One in five black veterans who made it out alive suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, yet more than 80 percent of them never sought mental health treatment at the VA. The reasons for this care deficit are numerous and include the department’s failure to educate returning veterans of color on the benefits owed them. These numbers were also driven by the far-too-common notion in veteran circles that trauma can be handled alone.

Yet the black vets who sought help after Vietnam were often spurned. Such was the case with Ron Hill, who waited 43 years to secure disability benefits. “The way we were treated when we came home was different from white veterans,” Hill told a Pennsylvania newspaper in 2013. “Now that we’re older, we’re refiling (for benefits) because we want the injustice to be rectified. But VA hopes we die. They’re going to string us out because the older we get, the less likely they’ll have to pay us.”

Today, black veterans generally enjoy better health and economic outcomes than people of color who never served. Yet the department’s statistics remain troubling. Major studies of black health outcomes in the VA in recent years have found racial disparities across all types of conditions, from cancer to diabetes. Black veterans today are also twice as likely to live in poverty as white ones, and roughly 45 percent of all homeless veterans are black or Hispanic, despite these groups making up less than 15 percent of the veteran population.

Many black veterans also feel they’re lowballed by the VA on their disability claims. This contention was backed up in a 2003 survey of more than 3,000 veterans that found only 43 percent of black veterans who sought a service-connected disability rating for PTSD actually received the benefit, compared to 56 percent for veterans of other backgrounds. A shocking illustration of this system’s biases came in 2016, when five VA appeals and benefits officials were revealed to have exchanged racist emails.

While Wilkie, the Trump-appointed VA secretary, has announced no concrete plans to systematically tackle discrimination in the department, he’s pledged to improve the culture in Kansas City. On July 2, Wilkie toured the hospital and acknowledged the seriousness of the allegations. Yet he was quick to contend that complaints and employee satisfaction rates in Kansas City were in line with those in other facilities across the country, and he praised the leadership of the hospital’s director, David Isaacks, whose resignation protesters have demanded. “What [Isaacks] has done is bring employees together, not just through diversity, but promising that they will be heard, that there will be accountability from the highest level,” Wilkie said.

That was certainly news to VA employees, as well as local leaders of the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Concerned Clergy Coalition, and other community organizations in Kansas City. The day before Wilkie arrived, those activists had organized a press conference at the VA center, where they sought to present a letter to Isaacks laying out concrete steps to eliminate racial discrimination inside the hospital. But when they arrived, they were informed that Isaacks was unavailable to receive them. Then, in the middle of the press conference, a VA spokeswoman kicked them out of the center. “Please take your camera and exit the property,” she told the assembled organizers and reporters. “This is our chief of police and I don’t want to have to ask you again.”